No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.

An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky

Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.

I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get better.

BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow. Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.

Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and fishing communities are shut down.

“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”

Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is in charge of the National Response Team.

Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.

Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used, but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of chemical applied until now.

Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.

I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,” because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own. It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the environment.

Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an undetermined amount of time.

“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me amend my thoughts.”

Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at all.

To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Official sources of information:

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Fishery Closure Information

EPA Response to BP Oil Spill

Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who are part of the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and providing an insider’s view about their work with affected wildlife.

Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil coming ashore.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert

3 thoughts on “No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

  1. I saw a You Tube video about using hay and straw to absorb the oil. Is it possible that this cheap fix won’t be considered because it is cheap?

  2. Cross-posted at Grist:
    Here’s a simple idea: Build at large dome of iron, say 100′ across, about 400 tons, with a vertical wall about 3 feet hig and 3 feet down around the sides, sharpened on the lower blade. Lower the dome on the well with a pipe immediately dumping a couple hundred cubic yards of cement on top of the dome to weigh it down. Design it to fit the contours of the bottom around the gusher. Yes there would be high pressure gas and oil seeking a way out around the edges, and it would depend on the ability of the lower edges to make a seal, but if leaks were detected then drop another dome to cover the leak, until it’s plugged.

    And here was a response:
    While I’ve been looking at a more sophisticated design, I’ve not found any insuperable hindrance to the concept you describe – and I don’t see why there’s no work ongoing to build one even as a reserve option.

    The sequence I’m looking at is:

    1/. 3 shifts of 200 steel fabricators produce, ASAP, a very large double skinned cone with a large bore pipe and stop cock at the top. The inner skin is smooth, watertight and conical (to ensure clathrates are swept out) and the outer skin is domed and of thick steel plate (to withstand the impact of rock ballast).

    2/. The area around the well head is cleared of debris, while every barge needed for ballast delivery is commandeered and filled, and the dome is towed to site on a crane barge (or under floatation bags if quicker overall).

    3/. The dome is lowered over the wellhead and the double skin is immediately pumped full of concrete, which settles on the seabed at the dome’s edge, making a decent seal.

    4/. Many bargeloads of ballast are chuted onto the dome immediately, burying it up to the outflow pipe and stop cock. The stopcock is then closed, very slowly.

    5/. A steel cap is then lowerd over the outfow pipe to protect it while dozens more bargeloads of ballast are chuted down to it, burying the well head permanently.

    Not being a drilling engineer, it may be that there’s some critical weakness in this sequence – and if so, I’d like to hear what it is.

    OTOH, if there isn’t, then we really need to demand an answer as to why a basic approach like this isn’t even being publicly discussed,
    let alone actually prepared,
    let alone put in place three weeks ago.


  3. It is indeed an inconceivable disaster. For all we know, oil will still be coming up in a year. Just inconceivable.
    Technically, risk = probability x magnitude. But our society has very nearly made risk synonymous with probability. This catastrophe shows why it’s so crucial to include the magnitude component. Sure, it’s unlikely that new oil rigs in Alaska would blow up — but what are the consequences if they do?
    For more thoughtful and depressing observation, I’d encourage folks to look at Biologist and author Carl Safina has testified to Congress and has spent some time down in the Gulf since the spill. His comments are worth reading.

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